Beauty, Ugliness, and Power in African Art at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

The Language of Beauty in African Art is a sprawling exhibition predicated on a radical proposition (for major Western museums): evaluating African sculptures from the perspective of the cultures that produced them, rather than from the viewpoint of the European cultures (and their successors) that looted and/or collected the works. This exhibition is fundamentally concerned with how these sculptures were valued and considered efficacious because of their beauty, ugliness, appropriateness, and/or power. The exhibition was on view at the Kimbell in Fort Worth through July 31, 2022.

In many sub-Saharan African cultures, words for beauty also signify goodness, thus endowing aesthetics with moral value. Sometimes the beautiful is a golden mean that extends to human behavior. In a Language of Beauty in African Art catalog essay titled “Beauty and Ugliness in African Art and Thought,” Wilfried van Damme notes that when Baule villagers assess anthropomorphic sculptures, they say:

Necks should be neither too long (“like a camel”), nor too short (“like a cricket”); buttocks should be neither too flat (“like a frog”), nor too developed (“like a northern woman”), and so on. … The principle of the golden mean also seems to serve as an ethical or social ideal among the Baule. Aesthetics, in short, often coincides with ethics. The beautiful is the good. It pleases the spirits. To the living, beauty is always exemplary. And, as we shall see, even frightening and/or ugly sculptures have important social functions.


You might be interested in